Chevalier: Book 2
As the world grows stranger, I’ve taken comfort in something so satisfying, so delightful and escapist, that it should almost be prescribed on the NHS. It’s been over two years since I read Honour and the Sword, the first of A.L. Berridge’s novels about the Chevalier de Roland, but I don’t want you to think that betokens a lack of enthusiasm. On the contrary! This is a sequel but also – apparently – the last book in the series, because it was published in 2011 and Berridge has gone alarmingly quiet in recent years. I didn’t want to get to the end too quickly, so I’ve been saving it for a moment when I really need it. And now, with new rules bidding us stay at home, my annual trip to Paris cancelled, and no knowledge of when it will end, I needed it. So I escaped to France in 1640, to a world of duels, honour and skirmishes; of fetes in the Luxembourg Gardens and gritty subterfuge in the forests; of intrigues and plots, romance, war, and Cardinal Richelieu bestriding the world like a (fading) colossus.
The last time we saw André, the Chevalier de Roland, he’d just managed to fight off the armies of Spain, which were nosing hungrily at Picardy and, in particular, at his village of Dax-en-roi. We left him flushed with triumph, and that’s where we rejoin him, as he heads to the bright lights of Paris, to the house of his grandmother the Comtesse de Vallon, accompanied by his best friend and half-brother, Jacques Gilbert. Naturally, with the unerring instinct for trouble of a young d’Artagnan, the Chevalier barely makes it through the gates of Paris before falling into more trouble. That’s what comes of being (almost) seventeen, and almost ridiculously noble of heart. The ingredients for disaster are as follows: a mysterious man in the robe of a monk; a group of sinister conspirators; a pretty tavern girl; a water-trough; and the Chevalier’s fierce sense of chivalry, which forbids him to countenance any insult to a lady (even a tavern girl). Within seconds, the Chevalier’s arrival in Paris has metamorphosed from triumphal entry to tavern brawl. Worse still, he has acquired a new and very dangerous set of enemies, who will stop at nothing to avenge his insults to them, and who clearly have secrets to hide.
Initially, the Chevalier has eyes for little beyond his beloved Anne du Pré, who has now been brought to her family’s house in Paris. He eagerly anticipates their betrothal, only to find, to his horror, that her family are having second thoughts (though Anne herself, flush with the passion of a teenage girl, certainly is not). What could account for such a change of heart? Could it be the new friendships cultivated by Anne’s weak brother Florian – whose new chum Bouchard not only has his eye on Anne, but also just happens to be one of the blackguards whom the Chevalier fought in the tavern courtyard? What are Bouchard and his friends plotting? Why have they been seen in the company of a Spanish gentleman, when Spain is so clearly the enemy of France? Could their plot reach to the very heights of the French establishment? And what does that mean for the safety of the France, and the territorial ambitions of Spain? It rapidly becomes clear that the Chevalier has stumbled into an ants’ nest of intrigue, and that he’s made a bitter enemy of the one man who can’t bear to be thwarted. It also becomes clear that fame, popularity and a romantic reputation can’t save from the Chevalier from someone who is determined to destroy him – but maybe, just maybe, his fame and his own irrepressible charm and hotheadedness, will give him a fighting chance.
Almost inevitably, sequels don’t delight quite as much as the first book in a series, because the joy of novelty has worn off. But In the Name of the King still managed to delight me rather a lot. I will admit that one of the things I enjoyed about the first book was to see the Chevalier finding his feet among a close-knit group of friends, while in this novel he and Jacques – for example – spend a good deal of time apart. Yet I understand that stories can’t always be the same, otherwise they’d get boring. And we meet new characters here to add to the network, such as the pragmatic old rascal Grimauld, the lovely Bernadette, and the wonderful Puppies, the gang of bright young things who make friends with the Chevalier and with Jacques. Plus, this time it’s Jacques’s turn to find his feet, as he and his half-brother are schooled in what it means to be gentlemen, and the boundaries of his world – and his responsibilities – expand. There is swashbuckling aplenty, of course. Berridge also keeps the same narrative structure as in the first book, with different voices coming together to tell the Chevalier’s story, though we never hear directly from him. I was very pleased to hear from Stefan Ravel again, whose unimpressed, laconic snark adds a welcome counterpoint to the admiring voices of the other characters. A perfect tapestry of voices.
Now, if only there were more! But I have to accept, with great sadness, that there probably won’t be. Nevertheless, if you have a Dumas or Sabatini-shaped hole in your life, or if you feel that the global lockdown would be improved by some swashbuckling (because, let’s face it, what isn’t?), then I do recommend this for some pitch-perfect period adventure, populated by vivid, engaging characters and full of panache. This is definitely a cut above your usual historical romp, and it’ll be well worth your time.